Purcell, John Baptist
PURCELL, JOHN BAPTIST
Archbishop; b. Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, Feb. 26, 1800; d. St. Martin's, Brown County, Ohio, July 4,1883. He was the third of four children of Edward and Johanna (Keefe) Purcell, who gave John an excellent classical education in the school at Mallow. At 18 he immigrated to the United States, where he obtained work as a private tutor with a prominent family on Maryland's eastern shore. In 1820 he entered Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md., receiving minor orders and serving on the faculty there before being sent (1824) to complete his studies at the Sulpician seminary at Paris, France. After ordination on May 20, 1826 in Notre Dame Cathedral by Abp. Hyacinthe L. de Quelen of Paris, he continued his studies at Saint-Sulpice until 1827, when he returned to the United States. At Emmitsburg he served as professor, vice president (1828), and president (1829) of Mt. St. Mary's until his appointment (1833) as
bishop of Cincinnati, Ohio, to succeed its first bishop, Edward Fenwick, OP.
Bishop. Purcell was consecrated Oct. 13, 1833, by Abp. James Whitfield in the Baltimore cathedral and remained in the city to attend the sessions of the Third Provincial Council of baltimore. He was installed the following November 14 in the see city of his diocese, which at the time had one church at Cincinnati, one under construction at Hamilton, and 14 others throughout the state, 9 of which had been willed by Bishop Fenwick to the Dominicans of Ohio. The new bishop lost no time in providing for the wants of the growing church in Ohio. He purchased a site for a new cathedral, and St. Peter's was completed and consecrated by Abp. Samuel Eccleston of Baltimore on Nov. 2, 1845.
After trying several locations for a diocesan seminary, Purcell laid the cornerstone (1848) of a new building on Price Hill, west of the city, and changed the name to Mt. St. Mary Seminary of the West, which was solemnly dedicated and opened with 12 seminarians in 1851. For many years it was an important center for the training of priests until its transfer (1904) to Hamilton County, Ohio. From the beginning, Purcell was an advocate of Catholic education, and under his administration parochial schools multiplied. Among the communities of religious women invited to staff them and other diocesan institutions were the Sisters of Charity, who had arrived in Cincinnati in 1829, Notre Dame sisters (1840), Precious Blood sisters (1844), Ursulines (1845), Good Shepherd sisters (1857), Sisters of Mercy and Franciscan sisters (1858), Little Sisters of the Poor (1868), the Religious of the Sacred Heart (1869), and Sisters of Christian Charity (1881). In 1840 Purcell welcomed the Jesuits and the Precious Blood fathers and, subsequently, the Lazarists (1842), the Franciscan fathers (1844), the Brothers of Mary (1849), the Passionists (1870), the Holy Cross fathers (1871), and the Holy Ghost fathers (1875).
To provide for the growing number of German immigrants in his diocese, Purcell built (1834) Holy Trinity Church, the first German-speaking parish in Cincinnati and the first west of the Alleghanies. As the German Catholic population continued to increase, numerous other such parishes were founded, directly or indirectly, from Holy Trinity. The first Catholic German periodical published in the United States was the Wahrheitsfreund of Cincinnati, which appeared in 1837 and continued until 1907, when the need that had brought it into existence had passed. The Catholic Telegraph for English-speaking Catholics had been founded in 1831 and was also used by Purcell to diffuse a correct knowledge of the Catholic faith. In 1837 the bishop's brilliant defense of Catholic teaching and practice in the debates with Alexander Campbell, a Baptist minister, not only helped to dispel much of the existing prejudice against Catholicism, but also greatly enhanced Purcell's position and reputation among his own flock and throughout the United States. When numbers of Protestant ministers began to enter the Church, Purcell urged (1853) the establishment of a fund for these highly trained men whose conversion left them without means of support.
After several visitations of his diocese, Purcell recognized the impossibility of administering the entire state properly and therefore petitioned for the erection of a new see for the northern part of the area. In 1847 the Diocese of Cleveland was erected, dividing the Diocese of Cincinnati into two parts; two years later the boundaries were adjusted by mutual agreement of the two bishops.
Archbishop. Rome recognized the rapid growth of the church in Ohio and in 1850 elevated Cincinnati to an archdiocese, making Purcell its first archbishop. He received the pallium from Pius IX the following year, during one of his many trips to Europe. When Abp. Gaetano bedini, who had been commissioned by Rome to investigate trusteeism in the United States, visited Cincinnati in 1853, he was the victim of a wave of know–nothingism then sweeping the city. Under the leadership of Purcell, the champion of the rights of the Church in the West as Abp. John hughes was in the East, bloodshed was avoided and the insult to Bedini was deplored by right-minded citizens. In 1861 Cincinnati's archbishop, proclaiming himself an advocate of the Union, had the flag flown from his cathedral spire. Although this action called forth adverse criticism, Purcell continued boldly throughout the Civil War to support the North. At its close, he attended the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) and preached at one of its sessions. The conciliar decrees were sent to Rome with the usual letter to Pius IX. Later, when the text of the letter was used to support the thesis that the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore had at least implicitly affirmed papal infallibility, Purcell was one of the signers who denied the allegation.
At vatican council i (1869–70), he opposed the formal declaration of papal infallibility, not only because he considered it inopportune, but also because he objected to the definition of the doctrine itself before it was clearly stated just what was meant by the pope's infallibility. Before the final vote on the question was taken, Purcell was granted permission to return home. However, once the matter had been decided, he lost no time in publicly professing his belief in the dogma as defined.
Under Purcell a number of diocesan synods were held as well as the first three provincial councils (1855, 1858, 1861). Although the question of a coadjutor came up several times, it was not until 1862 that Sylvester H. Rosecrans was appointed auxiliary to Cincinnati. His transfer to Columbus, Ohio, in 1868 again left Purcell alone until 1880, when he resigned all affairs into the hands of the new coadjutor and administrator, Bp. William H. Elder. Purcell's last days were clouded by the serious financial disaster that struck the archdiocese in 1878. The archbishop's brother, Rev. Edward Purcell, had for 40 years conducted a private banking system that had attracted many depositors, particularly after the failure of several local banks and a number of national financial panics. However, in 1878 a run on the money deposited with Purcell depleted available funds and payments were suspended. A subsequent examination disclosed the insolvent state of the banking operation and an assignment of all the resources of the bank was supplemented by the transfer of certain diocesan property. When these proved insufficient to cover all liabilities, legal action ensued (1880–1905) in state and federal courts.
The archbishop's health was affected by the strain, and in November 1879 he took up residence in the Ursuline convent in Brown County, where he died a few years later. His remains were interred in the convent cemetery. During his administration the church had made great progress; in 1833 there had been only 16 churches for about 7,000 Catholics served by 14 priests, whereas in 1883 Ohio counted 500 churches with a Catholic population of 500,000, served by 480 priests.
Bibliography: Archives, Cincinnati archdiocese. m. a. mccann, Archbishop Purcell and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati (Washington 1918). j. h. lamott, History of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1821–1921 (New York 1921). m. e. hussey, "The 1878 Financial Failure of Archbishop Purcell," The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 36 (1978).
[m. p. carthy]